Identity and Gender in "The Man I Killed"

The chapter “The Man I Killed” follows the character Tim and an enemy soldier he recently killed in combat. Tim describes the destroyed and decimated condition the soldier is in, and progressively begins to create a vivid backstory for the dead soldier, one that is with no certainty of being true. The usage of this backstory is the main example of the usage of identity in this chapter. The story begins by describing the man physically, mentioning he’s body style and specific traits, and goes on to characterizing him as someone who’s not a fighter. He is explained to be a math teacher, drafted into the war against his own judgement and will, wanting the enemy to leave because he knew this wasn’t the place for him. We see Tim tell us the man wasn’t patriotic as his brothers and elders but he never spoke out, yet he didn’t want to fight in a war, he wanted to settle down in his life. Tim’s story he creates for the soldier is a definite example of identity, as the traits he would use to describe the soldier (doesn’t want to fight, not brave, etc) are all example of how Tim truly feels. The literal identity Tim seems to be creating for the solider in this chapter is truly a projection of Tim’s own identity onto the character, allowing him to feel empathy for the lost man.

“He would’ve been taught that to defend the land was a man’s highest duty and highest privilege. He had accepted this. Secretly though, it also frightened him. He was not a fighter… He hoped in his heart that he would never be tested. He hoped the Americans would go away” (119).

In “The Man I Killed”, O’Brien describes the features and life of the man he killed during the war. He creates an entire story of this man’s life in order to humanize him and relate him to his own self. O’Brien uses the theme of gender roles by diving into this man’s story. The baseline described that he was not one to fight for war, but felt that he had to in order to make his country proud. He had a small frame, love for education and was terrified of fighting the Americans. However, he felt that going into battle would be the manly thing to do. This shows the expectations that society has for men, and also shows that this man may have not been the stereotypical male that people expected him to be. It also parallels with O’Brien’s own story. Tim felt that he had to go to war so he wouldn’t disappoint his country and the people he loved. He felt that he needed to be a man. The same goes for the story of the man he killed. Both were terrified of going into battle, but felt that they needed to, as it was expected by their country.

“His chest was sunken and poorly muscled -- a scholar, maybe...He spent his nights alone, wrote romantic poems in his journal, took pleasure in the grace and beauty of differential equations.” (122).

Tim’s fabricated backstory for the man he killed includes mentions of war as his patriotic duty and privilege. The man must appear to appreciate his role in the war when he is with male relatives; men would stereotypically be appreciative of their role in a war to uphold their honor. However, the man does not feel this way, and must suppress these emotions in fear of disgracing himself. When the man is with his mother, he prays with her for the war to be over, so he is spared of this duty. The man can be open with his mother, a female relative, who, under common gender roles, would be more understanding towards his fear of the war. The characters of the man’s family abide by traditional gender roles, while the man himself does not.

“In the presence of his father and uncles, he pretended to look forward to doing his patriotic duty, which was also a privilege, but at night he prayed with his mother that the war might end soon. Beyond anything, he was afraid of disgracing himself” (O’Brien 121).

In “The Man I Killed,” O’Brien’s characterization of the dead soldier is demonstrative of how femininity  is viewed and the weakness associated with it. The man that Tim killed is rather small with little muscle and many woman-like traits. He explains that the man “was not a fighter” (119) and was often picked on for being so feminine when he was younger. It is implied that because he wasn’t masculine, he loved math, not war. The story that is created for the man shows how weakness and peace are often linked with femininity.

“He had no stomach for violence. He loved mathematics  his eyebrows were thin and arched like a woman’s, and at school the boys sometimes teased him about how pretty he was.” (121)

The Chapter: The Man I Killed illustrates the theme of identity because during the whole chapter we learn about the man Tim killed, and how the man in a way took over Tim’s identity. The man took over Tim’s identity because he couldn’t stop staring at the dead man’s body, he humanized the dehumanized soldier by telling the readers his supposed life story, and finally he couldn’t talk about what he had done. All of these aspects or points represent the theme of identity because this experience changed him in many ways and because Tim will always remember who, how, where, and why he killed this soldier. Tim did not want to enter this war in the first place, but then when he was in it, he killed someone. He will never be able to forget, forgive himself, or let it go, which thus is why he continues to write war stories. This chapter communicates that the theme of identity can take over someone. When a bad/traumatic experience happens to someone, that person allows that experience to take over their identity, which in a sense is their self.

“Kiowa shook his head. There was some silence before he said, ‘Stop staring”... he was a slim, dead, almost dainty young man of about twenty. He lay with one leg bent beneath him...one eye was shut. The other was a star-shaped hole. ‘Talk’, Kiowa said” (O’Brien 122,124).

Loss of Innocence in "The Man I Killed"

After killing a young Vietnamese soldier, Tim is unable to stop staring at him. He remembers the details of this themis-rupturing event years after the war has ended, thus demonstrating the loss of innocence that occurred. As Tim continues to describe that the soldier’s “one eye was shut, his other eye was a star-shaped hole,” it is evident that he has been traumatized by this event and has not yet fully recovered (118). In Intrusive Past, it states that recovery is not possible in the sense that one cannot regain their innocence once it is lost, thus exemplifying Tim’s loss of innocence (153). In addition, Tim is unable to talk about the death of the soldier and the emotions that he is feeling. This shows that the memory has not been converted into a narrative memory, but instead remains a traumatic memory. Since this event cannot be easily integrated into Tim’s existing schemas, it is clear that Tim has lost innocence from the war as he now is forced to create new ideas about the world - ideas that are far different from anything he expected. Through further analysis of this chapter, it is apparent that O’Brien attempts to convey that the events that trigger loss of innocence are often traumatizing beyond the time at which they initially occurred. In other words, it is not easy to forget these disturbing events, because the mind is still preoccupied with the mental distress that had taken place.

“The Man I Killed” further develops the theme of loss of innocence, specifically in Tim O’Brien. In this chapter, Tim was appalled when he came to the realization that he took another man’s life. Killing another human being was something that Tim had never encountered before, and the feelings of shock and disbelief were clearly evident. Throughout the chapter as well, Kiowa attempted to get Tim to stop staring at the body and keep moving. Tim was fixated on how the body looked, thoroughly describing the man’s physical features and appearances.. This demonstrates the inability to react to the situation and the loss of innocence that coincides with that of murder.

“‘Hey, you’re looking better,’ he [Kiowa] said. ‘No doubt about it. All you needed was time— some mental R&R.’ Then he said, ‘Man, I’m sorry.’ Then later he said, ‘Why not talk about it?’ Then he said, ‘Come on, man, talk.’ He [the man Tim killed] was a slim, dead, almost dainty young man of about twenty. He lay with one leg bent beneath him, his jaw in his throat, his face neither expressive nor inexpressive. One eye was shut. The other was a star-shaped hole. ‘Talk,’ Kiowa said” (124)

The Nature and Effects of War

“The Man I Killed” adds depth to the fact that people are affected by war. Men in Vietnam would have to join because to be able to defend their land was thought of as the highest privilege for man.They were not all fighters, some were not brave enough and in the end this ended up with death. Killing a man can change another man, some realize it was there duty and job to do so while others shrink back horrified at the act they just commited. Tim is stunned by the fact he had just killed a man. He tries to comprehend what he had just done by relating the death of the man by comparing it to objects or things that add a more fantastical dissection of the death.

War, of course, has traumatic effects, and we see this most clearly in “The man I Killed”.  As the title suggests, tim kills a VC boy, as it happened with a grenade.  As O’Brien recalls: “There were no thoughts about killing. The grenade was to make him go away” (O’Brien 126-127).  When Tim is confronted with fear, he responds immediately with violence.  He held no malice for the man, he was simply afraid.  Afterwards, Tim can’t stop staring at the man, constructing a life around the corpse he had made.  He relives the man’s death over and over again, struggling with the trauma of having ended another’s life.  

“The star-shaped hole was red and yellow. The yellow part seemed to be getting wider and wider” (O’Brien 120).

Fracturing of Themis in "The Man I Killed"

“The Man I Killed” portrays the fracturing of Tim’s themis through him killing a man. The shattering of his themis is emphasized by him not only vividly recalling the gruesome death of the man he killed, but also by him not being able to talk about it and just staring at the corpse. For him, killing someone was against his morality and something that he had never done before; therefore, it traumatized him because he betrayed his moral truths and what was right for him. Furthermore, he created an elaborate life story of this man so that he could cope with the guilt and make him feel better about what he did. Consequently, his traumatic experience causes the fracturing of what he believes is right through him vividly recounting the experience, just staring at the body, and coping with the guilt by giving the man a story.

"He hoped in his hear that he would never be tested... The war, he knew, would finally take him, but for the time being, he would not let himself think about it. He had stopped praying; instead, now, he waited" (O'Brien 199,122).

 

Fellowship and Comrades in "The Man I Killed"

“The Man I Killed” illustrates the importance of comrades helping each other through the difficult situations of war; in this case, Kiowa tries to help Tim recover from the experience of killing the Vietnamese soldier. Throughout the chapter, Tim imagines a story of the life of the soldier, ignoring the immutable reality of the situation and instead dwelling on the life he destroyed. Although Tim does not respond once in the chapter, Kiowa voluntarily steps in to console him because he truly wants to help Tim recover, showing the deep and unrelenting commitment that comrades can have to each other. Through the turbulent and traumatizing experiences of war, comrades can support and emphasize with each other.

“Tim, it’s a war. The guy wasn’t Heidi—he had a weapon, right? It’s a tough thing, for sure, but you got to cut out that staring” (120).

Death in "The Man I Killed"

Similar to “The Things They Carried”, “The Man I Killed” further shows the trauma caused by death. However, this chapter focuses on trauma experienced by a person directly responsible for death, such as Tim. After killing the Vietnamese soldier, Tim is fixated on him and he continues to describe the soldier's physical appearance, repeating many details, specifically the “star-shaped” hole in one of his eyes. This repetition of the soldier's description demonstrates the trauma Tim suffers, as the memory of the soldier’s death fails to integrate in Tim’s brain. In “The Intrusive Past”, Van der Kolk and Van der Hart state: “Frightening or novel experiences may not easily fit into existing cognitive schemes and either may be remembered with particular vividness or may totally resist integration” (160). The killing of the soldier is a completely new and horrifying encounter for Tim, whose mind fails to place the memory in an existing slot causing Tim to recall the experience in exact detail. Tim also refuses to talk to Kiowa and fabricates a narrative that reflects elements of his life for the soldier which further reveals the trauma he suffers and the shrinkage of his social horizon (Shay 194). Ultimately, Tim’s state of being in this chapter exemplifies the suffering endured after a traumatic event like death.

“Then he said, ‘Man, I’m sorry.’
  Then later he said, ‘Why not talk about it?’
  Then he said, ‘Come on, man, talk.’
      He was a slim, dead, almost dainty young man of about twenty. He lay with one leg bent beneath him, his jaw in his throat, his face neither expressive nor inexpressive. One eye was shut. The other was a star-shaped hole.
‘Talk,’ Kiowa said.” (124).

Atomization in "The Man I Killed"

The man I killed is an excellent chapter to analyze the literal atomization of a character, in the form of the man tim killed. Although it may seem that the man tim killed was put into a lot of character development , all of that is fiction. The truths about the man he killed are limited truths. It is true that the man he killed carried a weapon, and it is true that he was killed by a grenade. His corpse’s face is put into great detail. O’Brien describes his face with this passage: “His jaw was in his throat, his upper lip and teeth were gone, his one eye was shut, his other eye was a star shaped hole”. The man he killed was blown up by a grenade and is very literally atomized. He was essentially just another soldier, and he is just another casualty of war. Tim is also atomized in this chapter, as we see him in his true colors when he portrays himself in the story he comes up with for the man he killed. We see Tim in what he really is, a scared soldier wishing that the vietnamese would just go away, so he wouldn’t have to kill or be killed. The atomization of these characters is very evident in the chapter and is a solemn note on who soldiers are in times of war.

He was a slim, dead, almost dainty young man of about twenty. He lay with one leg bent beneath him, his jaw in his throat, his face neither expressive or inexpressive. One eye was shut, the other was a star shaped hole (O’Brien 124).

Key Authorial Choices in this chapter

  • “His jaw was in his throat, his upper lip and teeth were gone, his one eye was shut, his other eye was a star-shaped hole…” (118).
  • Imagined/false narrative about the soldier (119-122) - “Achilles In Vietnam” (Shay 194)
  • “Tim, it’s a war. The guy wasn’t Heidi, - he had a weapon, right?” (120).
  • “The butterfly was making it was along the young man’s forehead, which was spotted with small dark freckles” (120-121). “The butterfly was gone” (123).
  • “His other eye was a star shaped hole” (118).
    • “The other was a star-shaped hole” (120).
    • “The other was a star-shaped hole” (124).
  • “Kiowa covered the body with a poncho” (124).
    • “Then he said, ‘Man, I’m sorry.’
    •  Then later he said, ‘Why not talk about it?’
    • Then he said, ‘Come on, man, talk.’
    •  ...
    • ‘Talk,’ Kiowa said.” (124).
  • “Beyond anything else, he was afraid of disgracing himself, and therefore his family and  village” (121).
  • “The young man’s head was wrenched sideways, not quite facing the flowers, and even in the shade, a single blade of sunlight sparkled against the buckle of his ammunition belt” (122).
  • “‘Oh, man, you fuckin’ trashed the fucker,’ Azar said. ‘You scrambled his sorry self, look at that, you did, you laid him out like Shreddin fuckin’ Wheat’”(119).

 

  1. “One eye was shut. The other was a star-shaped hole.” (124)
  2. “His jaw was in his throat, his upper lip and teeth were gone, his one eye was shut, his other with a star-shaped hole...his nose was undamaged...his fingernails were clean, the skin at his left cheek was peeled back in three ragged strips, his right cheek was smooth and hairless” (118)
  3. “The butterfly was making its way along the young man’s forehead” (121)
  4. “I’ll tell you the straight truth” (123) Kiowa had said
  5. “The war, he knew, would finally take him” (122)
  • “Talk”, Kiowa said
  • Tim kept staring at the soldier
  • Tim humanized the dehumanized soldier by telling the readers his supposed life story
  • The effects from Tim’s grenade on the soldier's body
  • The soldier had parts of the same ideologies about not wanting to go to war like Tim did

2 thoughts on ““The Man I Killed””

  1. 1. “His jaw was in his throat, his upper lip and teeth were gone, his one eye was shut, his other eye was a star-shaped hole…” (118)

    -Atomization: The man, to whom Tim has assigned a story, has been disfigured to the point that he is unrecognizable. This shows that the war has reduced his being to this mere image, making the life that he led before seemingly meaningless.

    2. “Beyond anything else, he was afraid of disgracing himself, and therefore his family and village” (121).
    -Gender Roles, He wanted to look brave in front of his village because he feared that he would be looked down upon if he did not fulfill his duties as a man .This shows that men are willing to do anything that makes them seem masculine and authoritative.

    3. “‘Oh, man, you fuckin’ trashed the fucker,’ Azar said. ‘You scrambled his sorry self, look at that, you did, you laid him out like Shreddin fuckin’ Wheat’”(119).
    -Effects of War: Azar’s reaction to the the man’s death shows the effects of war because it has allowed him to view the man simply as an enemy, ignoring the fact that he was a human as well. The war has deemed this behavior as acceptable.

  2. “The other was a star-shaped hole” (120)
    “The Man I Killed” discusses the effects of war on soldiers who experience trauma through their own actions. Tim repeats “the other [eye] was a star-shaped hole” (120) several times over the course of the chapter, which could indicate the formation of a traumatic memory. He is unable to talk about the trauma or rework the memory, so he remains fixated on small details exactly as they appear.
    2. “Beyond anything else, he was afraid of disgracing himself”:
    This chapter discusses the theme of identity and gender through the man Tim killed. He feels like he is obligated to partake in the war because he is male and because he does not to bring shame on his family. The man believes that people would never understand his desire to abstain from war because it was a man’s duty to fight.
    3. “Then he said, ‘Man, I’m sorry.’ Then later he said, ‘Why not talk about it?’” (124)
    Kiowa’s efforts to have Tim talk about his trauma exemplify the theme of fellowship in the war. While Tim remains focused on the man’s body and creates a story for the man he killed, he is unable to talk about the death due to the traumatic nature of the experience. Kiowa attempts to help Tim begin to talk about and heal from his trauma, emphasizing the importance of fellowship in the war.

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